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Oxidative desulfurization approach for hydrocarbons lowers costs

By Scott Jenkins |

Petroleum refineries must meet increasingly stringent levels for sulfur content in fuel, but the conventional hydrodesulfurization approach requires high-pressures and temperatures. Alternative Petroleum Technologies Corp. (APT; Reno, Nev.; has piloted an oxidative desulfurization technology, known as Sulfex, that can remove sulfur from liquid hydrocarbons at near-ambient pressures and temperatures. Eliminating the need for high pressures and temperatures cuts both capital and operating costs for sulfur removal by at least half, says APT.

“The concept of oxidative desulfurization has been around for quite some time, but until now, successfully scaling up the process beyond laboratory scale has proved to be problematic,” explains Jack Waldron, APT vice president of engineering. Specifically, Waldron says that early large-scale oxidative desulfurization processes quickly attain equilibrium before adequate sulfur oxidation occurs, limiting its prospective commercial use.

However, in the Sulfex process, sulfur-containing hydrocarbons are oxidized with hydrogen peroxide to form sulfones, which are separated from the hydrocarbon stream, thus avoiding the problems inherent in earlier systems. Taking advantage of its expertise in emulsions, APT has developed a proprietary method that repeats cycles of oxidation and removal of sulfones to drive the reaction toward completion without the use of ultrasonics. The liquid containing the peroxide and other reagents forms an emulsion with the hydrocarbon stream at high mix rates. The emulsion allows the reactions to proceed quickly, but then separates to allow the oxidized sulfur compounds to be removed using a liquid or solid sorbent material, which is then recycled, Waldron says.

The pilot-scale process — which APT has used to remove sulfur from 20 types of hydrocarbon fuels, including diesel, jet fuel and kerosene — was independently verified by Argonne National Laboratory. A large engineering firm affirmed the mass and heat balances. APT is now looking for partners to install the process at commercial scale and is in discussions with a number of oil companies, both in the U.S. and abroad.

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